Supreme Court Sides with Pharmaceutical Companies in Vaccine Injury Case


In a 6-2 vote, the United States Supreme Court voted overwhelmingly in favor of pharmaceutical companies this week in a case initiated by a Pennsylvania family who was trying to bring a claim outside of the “vaccine court” to receive compensation for their child’s vaccine injury. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the vote due to a conflict of interest stemming from her days as Solicitor General.

In 1986, Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act which established a federal “vaccine court” that would handle all vaccine injury claims. The goal of the act was to create a no-fault system which would compensate vaccine injury victims. Congress felt this step was crucial to ensuring that there would be a sufficient vaccine supply to protect and immunize children while helping to compensate injured victims. At the time the law was enacted, the cost of producing vaccines was rapidly rising due to pharmaceutical injury claims. As a result, the supply of vaccines was suffering. The “vaccine court” served to correct this problem so that children would be able to receive necessary vaccines.

In the case recently decided by the Supreme Court, the parents of Hannah Bruesewitz claimed that their daughter developed seizures as a result of a vaccine intended to prevent diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus. Hannah is now 19 years old and still suffers from residual seizure disorder. She is permanently disabled and will require lifelong care.

The claim alleges that vaccine manufacturer Wyeth failed to properly warn parents of the risks associated with taking this vaccine. Furthermore, Wyeth also produced another vaccine which had proven in clinical trials to result in fewer side effects. The Bruesewitz claim alleges Wyeth failed to adequately promote the use of this safer alternative vaccine. The vaccine which caused Hannah’s condition was pulled from the market in 1998.

The original claim was rejected by the “vaccine court,” prompting the Breusewitz family to seek compensation in federal and state courts. However, this is prohibited by the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act. The Supreme Court sided with the pharmaceutical company, ruling that the Congressional law did not allow for the pursuit of vaccine injury claims due to design defects in state and federal courts.

This ruling is highly controversial, and has elicited strong reactions on both sides of the debate. Many in the medical community have applauded the ruling, asserting that it will help protect children by bolstering our national immunization system and ensuring that vaccines will continue to be readily available to all children. However, vaccine injury victims are greatly troubled by the ruling, since it limits their ability to receive the compensation they feel is rightfully deserved when injured by vaccines with design defects.